North vs. south? Why the IHSA needs to change its football playoff structure

Lena-WInslow's Marey Roby breaks loose on a long run en route to 241 yards rushing in the Panthers' 38-25 Class 1A state title game victory over Carrollton on Friday, November 26, 2021 at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
Matt Trowbridge
Rockford Register Star

Tolono Unity was 0-5 in state championship football games under 28-year coach Scott Hamilton heading into Friday's Class 3A finale.

“We found a way to blow it five times in these games,” Hamilton said before playing Byron.

After losing 35-7 to Byron, it's up to six times. But Hamilton and the Rockets never “blew” anything. They simply took the easy road to the finals — where they then ran into a Northern roadblock. There is nothing for Tolono Unity to second-guess itself about. The Rockets lost each of those six games by at least 21 points.

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Byron, in effect, played the real state title game the week before, with a semi-miracle 15-14 win over Elmhurst IC Catholic. The Tigers trailed 14-0 before scoring twice in the last four minutes, the second TD after recovering an on-side kickoff.

“No disrespect to Unity, but IC Catholic cemented us as a state champion lock-in team,” Byron running back Ethan Palzkill said.

Comparing small-school football in the southern half of Illinois to the northern half is like comparing Pac-12 football to the SEC or Big Ten. Teams from the northern half of the bracket won all eight state titles last weekend, although this is mostly a small-school issue.

The IHSA recently changed its basketball tournaments, making all four classes play on the same days, to try to increase attendance. Well, the football playoffs are more broken than basketball ever was. If the IHSA wants the best teams to play each other for state titles, it needs to either seed teams 1 through 32 in each class or seed 1 through 16 and have the highest seeds from the south play the lowest seeds from the north, and vice versa.

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The smaller the schools, the more dominant the north is. NUIC teams are 14-1 in Class 1A and 2A state title games since 2005. Yet Forreston, which beat Lena-Winslow in the regular season, had to meet the eventual 1A state champs in the second round of the playoffs.

“There are so many times in the last five years where we faced off with Lena and no matter who the winner was we thought we were the best two teams in the state and it was unfortunate that we couldn’t meet in Dekalb or Champaign,” Forreston coach Keynon Janicke said. “That would be crazy.”

On paper, Carrollton gave Le-Win a fairly good game, losing 38-25. But Le-Win turned the ball over three times in the first  13 minutes. Without those mistakes, Janicke said Le-Win “could have annihilated them.”

Like everybody expected.

And like what happens frequently.

Forreston High School head football coach Keynon Janicke instructs his team during practice on Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2021, at Forreston High School in Forreston.

Teams from the northern half of the bracket are 13-2 in state title games in the smallest three classes in the last five playoffs. Those 13 wins are by an average of 24 points. Both losses were by only four points, both by Byron and one to a Williamsville team that played in the northern bracket just the year before, losing 13-0 to Byron in the quarterfinals.

“The IHSA wants to please everybody all around,” Janicke said. “If it’s just two north teams, what’s the point of that? But it is pretty special every time it happens during the regular season and again in the playoffs.”

Special to fans of the sport in general, but Janicke is right: The IHSA wants to make sure every area of the state has skin in the game.

"The IHSA's philosophy from the very beginning has never been, 'Let's make sure the two best teams advance to the state championship' in any sport," said Sam Knox, the IHSA executive director in charge of football. "Sometimes you have a really good matchup in the sectional championship game or supersectional that people said would be a great state championship game. But the goal is to have geographic representation in the state finals, north, south, east and west."

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But that has made for a lot of anticlimactic title games. And it’s not just the NUIC. If the Byron-IC Catholic game was on TV in the finals, Byron’s stunning victory over a team that had won three of the previous four state titles would be talked about forever. Even Byron’s 28-24 quarterfinal win over Braidwood Reed-Custer in the final 10 seconds would have gone down as one of the best small-school state title games in a decade.

Instead we get 35-7.

And we get that a lot.

For a simple reason.

The best southern small-school teams tend to be driven by athletic dual-threat quarterbacks. The best northern small-school teams simply run over you. Lena-Winslow, Wilmington and Byron trampled their southern foes, averaging 353 yards rushing in the finals to 109 for their opponents.

Le-Win and Wilmington didn’t complete a single pass. They didn’t have to.

“Football in northern Illinois is a physical brand of football,” Byron coach Jeff Boyer said. “People hang their hat on the running game. It’s what we do up here.”

That’s what Byron did 22 years ago when it won its first state title with Boyer at quarterback, setting a then-record for most points in a season as Sean Considine and Mark Cotter ran wild. And, Boyer said, it’s what Byron will keep doing.

“When you talk about Lena, Forreston, Wilmington — who won the 2A title and we have played them multiple times — they run the football,” Boyer said. “It’s proven to be a good offense. It’s not as flashy as being in the gun and throwing the ball all over the place, but it gets results.”

“That,” agreed Tolono Unity’s coach Hamilton, “is what those guys do up there.”

And it’s what the guys in the southern small-school brackets simply cannot stop.

“It’s probably a different culture,” said Palzkill, who called himself “the least physical” Tiger and had all 64 receiving yards by any of the winning teams in the lowest three classes. “They are used to playing back at the snap on defense and looking for passes. They are not used to someone running at them every play and knocking them over like we do and like Lena does. Like a lot of teams in our conference do. It’s just a change in culture.”

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It's the winning culture in Illinois small-school football. And it deserves a chance to go on display against a worthy opponent on the biggest stage.

Byron's Chandler Binkley breaks free around the left end en route to rushing for 164 yards in Byron's 35-7 victory over Tolono Unity in the Class 3A state title game on Friday, November 26, 2021 at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

It's not like the north-south split is sacrosanct. Class 7A and 8A don't even have a split; they are seeded 1-32 because the vast majority of those schools are up north already. Even 5A and 6A can get that way. Chicago Morgan Park and Kankakee were in the south in 5A this year because 16 playoff teams in 5A were even farther north than they were. Knox said several teams, like Williamsville, frequently flip-flop between north and south depending on what other teams made the playoffs in their class.

And the IHSA only a decade or so ago changed basketball seeding from regionals only into sub-sectionals to make them more competitive.

"I remember when we had regionals that had five 20-win teams and down the road the next regional barely had a team above .500," Knox said — a situation that, again, was a big problem with the NUIC. "Now it's much more balanced and some teams are driving farther to make it happen."

Knox said schools could make it happen in football. If they want. He said the football advisory committee meets next week and could propose a change to the IHSA board of directors. He doubts that will happen, though, even though he said everyone noticed the north bracket swept all eight state titles last week.

"Coaches would rather have a 1 through 32 bracket in every class," Knox said, "but principals and athletic directors want to make sure they are not sending their teams on long, long trips to make it happen. We want a fair tournament, but we also consider travel for our fans and family, too. Fans would much rather drive a short trip."

Matt Trowbridge

Matt Trowbridge: mtrowbridge@rrstar.com; @matttrowbridge